Last season, the Falcons led the NFL in scoring with 540 points, matching the prolific 2000 Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf” offense for seventh-most in NFL history. Now the team is out to show that it wasn’t Kyle Shanahan’s offense. It’s the Atlanta Falcons’ offense.
Shanahan is gone, but the Falcons are sticking with what works under new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
That’s fine with Sarkisian.
“I’ve been through a lot, and I’ve coached at a really high level early on in my career all the way through. I’m not keeping score, if that makes sense,” Sarkisian said. “It’s more about what do we need for the team aspect so that we can go try to win every football game and ultimately win that last game.”
It was primarily the offense that carried the Falcons to 11 wins in the regular season and a trip to Super Bowl LI in 2016. Quarterback Matt Ryan put up the best season of his career, earning him both the NFL MVP award and Offensive Player of the Year honors.
Spreading the ball around was a key part of Shanahan’s play-calling. Last year, Ryan connected with an NFL-record 13 different receivers in the end zone. Luckily for Sarkisian, he inherits the same stacked offense that can give any defense fits: Ryan at the helm. The freak athlete Julio Jones. Speedy wide receiver Taylor Gabriel. The dual threat of Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman out of the backfield.
Sarkisian, who has never called a single play at the NFL level, is the unknown for Atlanta going forward. The big question is if he can call the right plays and identify opponents’ weaknesses effectively enough to get his version of the Falcons’ offense to pick up where it left off last season.
What will change under Steve Sarkisian?
The plan for the Falcons is to keep the offense fundamentally the same. The outside zone scheme they run, which incorporates a lot of play action, won’t change.
The Falcons run primarily a wide zone scheme that relies on a balance between the run game and the passing game. It also leans on Ryan’s ability to make plays on traditional dropbacks, quick three-step drops, or out of play action.
When Sarkisian was at USC, his offense bore some similarity to the one the Falcons ran under Shanahan. Atlanta likes to go up-tempo, and that’s something you may see more of under Sarkisian. It was a hallmark of his Trojans offense. Play action was also a factor in Sarkisian’s USC scheme.
Two areas that could change will be more emphasis on flexing out tight ends and less use of the fullback, in part because of the way everyone on the field is involved in run blocking in this system. But otherwise, the scheme should look mostly the same.
It was a bit of a surprise when the Falcons hired Sarkisian after he spent only a single game as the Alabama offensive coordinator. But Dan Quinn brought him in because he believes Sarkisian is capable of running the existing offense.
“Well as a play caller, I felt like, number one, what an aggressive play caller he’s been through the years,” Quinn said after Sarkisian was hired. “He has a real familiarity with the wide-zone scheme, the play action, and the keepers. That’s such a big part of what we do. It’s him as a play caller.”
Ryan said Sarkisian is adjusting to the Falcons’ offense, and not the other way around.
"He's had to make the transition," Ryan said, via CBS Sports’ Pete Prisco. "For us, there might be a handful of things here and there that are different, kind of like when Dirk (Koetter) came in to run our offense [in 2012]. We kept the same system and Dirk adjusted. It's the same for me now. You are bringing in a real quality football guy with some new coaches and he will adjust to us."
Sarkisian hasn’t been with the Falcons long, but he’s already adapting to the offense, the players, and the culture in Atlanta.
How does Sarkisian fit in Atlanta?
When Falcons players talk about Sarkisian, the phrase that regularly surfaces is “players’ coach.”
“Real chill, players’ coach, he listens,” Julio Jones said during OTAs. “He’s not stuck in his ways or anything like that. Like I said, he’s a players’ coach and he’s easy to communicate with.”
The cultureQuinn has built with the Falcons is a reason behind the team’s quick turnaround from 8-8 in his first season in Atlanta to a Super Bowl bid last year. Part of the reason Sarkisian was hired is because of the way he fits into that culture.
Passing game coordinator Raheem Morris said Sarkisian and the other new coaches the team brought in this offseason are embracing Quinn’s approach in Atlanta.
“They’ve completely gotten along with what we call things,” Morris said. “They use our language. They are the sounding board for our program. They’ve completely bought into what we believe in as our standard, and we hold that with high regard at the highest level, and (Sarkisian has) done a great job of doing that himself.”
Sarkisian is only concerned with putting the team in a position to win.
“We have to make sure that we’re really digging — that we’re digging for the information we need so that we’re calling the right plays to be successful, true to our system,” Sarkisian said.
What the Falcons want is an opportunity to put all of the 28-3 jokes to rest with a return trip to the Super Bowl in 2017. The defense got better as last season went on and should keep improving. But the Falcons’ greatest strength is still the offense, and they’ll need it to function near the same level it did last year.
Is the success the Falcons had in 2016 sustainable?
The Falcons regularly dismantled opposing defenses throughout the season and probably won’t be able to precisely recreate the offensive success they had. But with the same scheme and players, they should be able to get close enough to be contenders.
Ryan has finished in the top 10 for passing yards in each season except his first two years in the league. He’s been consistently productive, even during a down 2015 season. He finished that year ranked fifth in the league with 4,591 passing yards.
The balance the Falcons have with Freeman and Coleman helps, too. Defenses know these are backs who will find any gap and are dangerous in space, and having either in the backfield helps keep defenses honest. Both players also contribute in the passing game, which makes the Falcons that much harder to defend.
The Falcons’ offensive line was one of the best in the league last season, and it’s mostly intact. With Alex Mack still anchoring the center position, there shouldn’t be much, if any, dropoff with either pass or run blocking next season.
Add that to the sheer depth of receiving talent — Jones, Gabriel, Mohamed Sanu, Justin Hardy, and tight end Austin Hooper — and the Falcons just have too many offensive threats to contend with defensively.
After suffering a historic loss in Super Bowl LI, complete with a blown 25-point lead and the first overtime in Super Bowl history, it would be understandable if the Falcons felt pressure to match last year’s performance.
The offensive coaches are embracing it.
“We love that feeling of pressure,” Morris said. “There is no such thing as a bigger game. Whatever the next game is, that’s how we’re going to go through our process and handle it that way.”
There was some degree of panic in Atlanta when Shanahan accepted the head coaching role with the 49ers. But asking Sarkisian to take over the offense shouldn’t change much, and that puts the Falcons in the best position to get back to the Super Bowl in 2017.